There are two easily recognized biting flies: horse flies and deer flies. In many places, deer flies are called “yellow flies” but in Florida, there seems to be a distinction made between deer flies and yellow flies: most deer flies attack people and pets around the head, neck and shoulders. Yellow flies and horse flies usually attack the legs.
All of these flies are a problem for paddlers since their painful bites draw blood and often swell into itchy red sores. They are active from March to November, with a peak season from April through June.
Although horse flies and deer flies attack throughout the day, they are most active during the late afternoon and on cloudy days. They are common near large bodies of water and within forests, but are rarely found far from the shelter of trees. Because of this, horse and deer flies are not a problem for the paddler out in open water far from shore, but for those paddling on a narrow river with a close canopy of branches.
The flies are territorial and ambush hunters, lying in wait for something to walk through their territory. They are attracted to heat and motion.
The flies are attracted to heat, so wear light colors since dark clothing is hotter. Since they are attracted to motion, as you paddle, you continually enter a new fly’s territory and attract new flies.
Long sleeves are the only means of protection. I have found that chemical insect repellents, even those with Deet, are not effective.
One company sells a deer fly patch, a sticky rectangle of flypaper you attach to the top of a hat. http://www.deerflypatches.com/
However, I prefer a modified version of the trolling deer fly trap developed by the University of Florida. To make one, attach a coat hanger wire or rod to your kayak that rises higher than your head, like an antenna. On top of this, place a blue plastic Solo cup upside down (the kind you used for keggers in college). Make sure that the cup is able to shake, rotate, and otherwise move. As you paddle, the flies respond to the cup’s motion, color, size, and height. Since deer flies usually fly at heights lower than 10 feet and attack the highest available area on the human body, they attack the cup instead of you.
If you want to capture and kill the flies, the cup can be coated with a sticky substance like Tanglefoot, or with flypaper. (Tanglefoot is messy, however and I don’t recommend it for use in the backcountry.)
While I have not seen this personally, fire ant balls can be a hazard if you are paddling along a river during the period of heavy spring and summer rains.
Wikipedia writes, “Red imported fire ants are extremely resilient and have adapted to contend with both flooding and drought conditions. If the ants sense increased water levels in their nests, they will come together and form a huge ball or raft that is able to float on the water, with the workers on the outside and the queen inside. Once the ball hits a tree or other stationary object, the ants swarm onto it and wait for the water levels to recede.”
That “other object” could be your kayak, which would not be pleasant. Know that this is a possibility and look out for fire ant balls during seasonal high water. To learn more, check out this National Geographic Article.
Sand gnats are also called “no-see-ums” because they are so small. They look like flecks of pepper and are hardly identifiable as flies when they land on you. Their bite however, is big. They spit an acid that dissolves the skin so that they can slurp the flesh. The resulting welt is red, itchy, and does not heal for two weeks! The picture comes from the blog Pure Florida—click on it to visit the blog.
Every insect repellent that one applies to the skin, from Skin So Soft to 100% Deet, does nothing to mitigate their attack. The only thing that keeps them away is an obscure sunscreen called Cactus Juice. It works miracles and was a lifesaver during my circumnavigation of Florida.
Fortunately, sand gnats are not found everywhere in Florida. They are most common near coastal marshes in the panhandle region.
Trombiculid mites are also known as berry bugs, harvest mites, red bugs, and chiggers. If paddling rivers and camping in forests, chiggers are your biggest enemy.
Why? Because they are so small, (1/100 of an inch) they are almost invisible. Hundreds of them can bite you without your knowledge. They leave behind painful, itchy, swollen, and red welts that do not heal for two weeks. This makes for miserable paddling.
However, there are two reasons for optimism. First, trombiculid mites are most numerous in summer when vegetation is heaviest. If you only paddle and camp during the prime season of November – March, chiggers should be much less of a concern. Secondly, if you are bitten, chiggers do not transmit disease.
How They Feed
Chiggers feed on skin, not blood. They insert their mouthparts into hair follicles or pores then inject a salivary secretion containing digestive enzymes that dissolve tissue. They feed by sucking up the liquefied tissue. The digestive fluid also causes surrounding tissues to harden, forming a straw-like feeding tube of hardened flesh called a stylostome.
Chigger bites itch and many people assume—incorrectly—that this is because they burrow into the skin. In fact, it is the stylostome that causes the itching. When they first attach to your skin, the bite goes unnoticed. Only 4-8 hours later does the itching begin, and by then the chigger itself has detached from your skin. When one bite appears on your skin, it is certain that more will follow.
Chiggers seem to prefer parts of the body where clothing fits tightly and so bites appear most frequently beneath socks, underwear, bras, and along the waistline.
The best method is to recognize chigger habitat and avoid exposure. They thrive in summer, in dry tall grasses and other low-lying, unshaded vegetation. There they wait on the tips of blades of grass, until a potential host walks by. Because they are found in grass, stay on the beach or in the clearing used for camping.
To minimize the possibility that they will catch a ride as you walk past them, wear tightly woven long pants (i.e. synthetic fibers). Appling Deet-based repellent to shoes, pant legs, and skin does little. Some sources recommend permethrin-based repellents, but I do not.
Do not wear dog or cat flea collars on your ankles or cattle ear tags on your shoes to ward off chiggers. This does not work, is toxic, and can cause chemical burns on your skin.
Treatment of Bites
If you suspect that you have chiggers attached to your skin, they are easily removed with soap and water. However, once a bite appears, it is too late to prevent more bites from appearing. The stylostomes, which are the irritant, remain after the chigger is gone.
Time is the best and only healer of chigger bites.
As a chigger bite heals, it looks like a pimple and can be popped. A small amount of puss will come out. Folk remedies such as nail polish, calamine lotion, Vaseline, and baby oil are based on the false belief that the chigger is still embedded in the skin and needs to be suffocated. To temporarily relieve itching I have found that taking hot showers helps for a few hours. The most effective relief comes from lotion containing aloe and lidocaine, which is marketed as sunburn relief. This is handy since you should carry something like this already.
Anyone with experience backcountry camping should be familiar with ticks and so I will not go into detail about prevention and removal found in many other sources. It is simply important to know that Florida has five species of ticks that may bite you or your pet: the blacklegged tick (aka the deer tick), American dog tick, lone star tick, gulf coast tick, and brown dog tick. Lyme disease and Rocky Mountain spotted fever are present, but not common as in New England.
Remember that like chiggers, ticks seek hosts by climbing vegetation and waiting for an animal to walk by. They like to go for your groin. To prevent bites, wear long pants and long-sleeved shirts when walking around camp, unless camping on a beach ot course.
Remove ticks as soon as they are noticed. However, most ticks do not bite immediately and many pathogens are not transmitted until the tick has been attached for 24-48 hours.
For attached ticks, remove them with fine-tipped tweezers. Grasp the tick as close to the skin's surface as possible and pull straight back. Do not twist the tick, because its mouthparts may break off in your skin and can become infected. Be careful not to squeeze or crush the tick. The tick's fluids may contain pathogens. Folk remedies such as suffocating the tick with Vaseline or nail polish, or touching a hot knife to the tick, do not work.
Why is Florida’s best known insect nuisance last on this list? Because it is the best known. There is no need to go into detail about something everyone is familiar with.
I am a strong advocate for using non-toxic, non-polluting products in the backcountry. We would not think to leave food wrappers or other trash on the trail, right? Of course not. Similarly, we shouldn't think its okay to leave behind chemicals.
To do this, do not use products containing DEET, which is toxic to both humans and the environment. The Wikipedia article on DEET describes its toxicity in detail. Not only is DEET a toxic chemical, but it stains synthetic hiking clothes and leaves an oily residue on skin and gear that is impossible to clean in the backcountry. Once on your hands, this residue ends up on your guidebook, maps, journal, toothbrush, water bottle, water filter, pots, utensils, et cetera —and we don’t want to eat DEET, right?
Here is a brief list of natural, non-toxic alternatives to DEET that I can vouch for:
This combination of sunscreen and bug repellent is the only thing I've found that will keep away sand gnats (aka no-see-ums). DEET does not work at all, nor does any thing else. So if you are going to be anywhere near marshes where sand gnats breed, bring some along. Cactus Juice is hard to find in stores, so order it online.
Other Non-Toxic Products